Louisiana's enactment last week of the most extreme anti-abortion law in the nation looks more and more like an ominous trip back in time.
Overriding a veto by Gov. Buddy Roemer, the Louisiana Legislature passed legislation that bans virtually all abortions in the state. Abortions will be permitted only to save the life of a pregnant woman or in cases of incest or rape if the victim reports the crime within a week. Unlike laws enacted in Utah and Guam during the last two years, the Louisiana law makes no provision for abortion when pregnancy threatens a woman's health. Doctors who illegally perform an abortion face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $100,000.
Those who support a woman's right to make her own abortion decision predict that Louisiana's law will jeopardize the health and imperil the lives of many women. And if history is any guide, it will.
GRADUAL RESTRICTIONS: During the 18th and early 19th centuries, abortion was legal in this country under common law until quickening, the point at which a pregnant woman can feel the movements of the fetus (about 16 weeks gestation). By the 1850s, abortion had become commercialized and was increasingly used by married women of the upper and middle classes. But by the 1860s, propelled by hostility toward immigrants and feminists and by the desire of the newly organized medical profession to quash the lucrative abortion business of homeopaths and midwives, states began to outlaw abortion. By the end of the century, every state had restricted abortion.
What happened? Lots of women died from illegal abortions. Research recently published in the Journal of American History reveals that often, as these women lay dying in hospitals, physicians and law enforcement officials routinely denied them medical attention until they confessed their "crime" and indicted their abortionist. But despite these risks, thousands of women during the early 20th Century continued to have abortions each year.
INEVITABLE LITIGATION: Although Louisiana's law does not take effect for a few months, a federal judge has already agreed to hear a challenge to its constitutionality. While we hope that the federal court will overturn this legislation, this trial is only the first in what could be a long process of litigation possibly leading all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Louisiana's law now joins the ranks of regressive bills passed in Pennsylvania, Guam and Utah, any one of which the high court could use to decisively overturn Roe vs. Wade, ending the right of choice for all American women.
But compassion and history argue that passage of more bills such as Louisiana's will not end abortion. The answer to the tragedy of unwanted pregnancies is not ever more restrictive and humiliating legislation.
The answer is safer and more accessible birth control and broad access to safe, low-cost abortions. RU-486, the so-called French abortion pill, offers that possibility and more. It appears to be much safer and painless than current surgical abortion techniques. The pill has also shown promise in treating breast cancer, Cushing's syndrome and other diseases.
But testing of RU-486 in this country has in effect been halted by an unwarranted "import alert" imposed by the Bush Administration. This ban on the importation of small personal quantities of the drug has so frightened the drug's manufacturer that it will not make supplies available for government research projects.
Meanwhile, abortions were performed as scheduled last week in Louisiana. And after its degrading law takes effect, they will still occur. Abortions, like the unwanted pregnancies that drive women to seek them, cannot simply be legislated out of existence.